The name of the beloved Fred Astaire is instantly recognized throughout the world. But were there aspects of Fred Astaire, besides his professional dancing and acting career, that no camera ever revealed? Upon Astaire’s death from pneumonia at age 88, New York Times dance critic, Anna Kisselgoff, said: “The magnitude of his achievement is as great a social phenomenon as it is a chapter in the history of art and entertainment.” (i) Let’s think about that… That means Astaire was to dancing what the Beatles were to popular music. Maybe more. “There was a time when every American boy wanted to be Fred Astaire – even Fred Astaire,” she wrote. “He became a national symbol. Ask any foreigner to name one of the great movie stars of all time and ‘Fred Astaire,’ more often than not, will be the reply.” Then she asks, “Should Fred Astaire be appraised specifically from the “dance’’ point of view? What other point of view is there?” (ii) A great question to ask! The “dance point of view,” as Kisselgoff’s title indicates, is Astaire’s perfection of dance on film, the art form he created. On the whole, Astaire’s influence and impact on dancing, which began on the vaudeville stage, continued unchecked for about 80 years—and far beyond. True, Fred didn’t fly solo. But he’s still the Superman of dancing in a universe without Kryptonite. Regarding Kisselgoff’s quest for perspectives on Astaire: there are a few. For one, he had many different, highly-developed talents.
He was so much more than a dancer. In addition to dancing, history forever links Fred Astaire to his abilities as a singer, actor, musician and composer, artist and entertainer, choreographer, television star, champion horse-breeder, fashion trendsetter, and businessman, not to mention a steadfast, devoted husband and father of 2 children–even a beloved cartoon character! (iii) American pianist and composer Oscar Levant called Astaire “the best singer of songs the movie world ever knew.” (iv) His acting skills also won him numerous awards, 3 Golden Globes among them, in more than 40 films. In 1981, Astaire accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute, which also entitles him the “5th Greatest Male Star of All Time.” He was a TV star winning 11 Emmy’s—the last for a 1978 show just before he turned 80. There were also honors from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, the Kennedy Center, and the American National Theatre Association for his “immeasurable contributions.” Four more awards after his death included a Grammy for “The Astaire Story,” a musical album Fred Astaire cut in 1952. (v) Fred was also an accomplished pianist, accordionist, and drummer who, it has been said, was serious enough about writing music to take a composing course with George Gershwin. Fred also wrote and performed the music for a “Hit Parade” Top 40 number, “I’m Building Up to An Awful Letdown.” (vi) How’s that for diversity of talent? His sense of style put him on 1968’s International Best Dressed List. (vii) Nearly half a century later, The Atlantic proclaimed Astaire still one of the 2 best-dressed actors in American film, alongside Cary Grant. (viii) Astaire won an honorary Academy Award for his innovations to musical film. First, he directed that all dance routines be filmed in one shot by a nearly-stationary camera with each dancer kept in view. Second, he wove both songs and dances into the plot, improving the momentum of all musicals. In the process, he transformed an entire industry’s payroll system by claiming part of each of his films’ profits, a new concept in the movie business giving him “complete autonomy over how the dances would be presented, allowing him to revolutionize dance on film.” (ix)
Astaire’s extraordinary business sense led him, in 1947, to found a brand new type of company aimed at teaching the public how to dance: Fred Astaire Dance Studios.It’s apparent that Fred kept his many talents–nearly every element of his life, in fact–honed to perfection. Even his hobby of raising racehorses paid off handsomely when Triplicate won the $100,000 1947 Hollywood Gold Cup. (x) Astaire’s one great sadness was losing his treasured wife, Phyllis, to lung cancer in 1954. She was only 46. So, it is fitting to appraise Fred Astaire for the range and depth of his talents. Still, there’s a third view of him, equally rich, seen through his accolades and the many books written about him, including his own. This view is Fred’s, which suggests that he, himself, never felt quite “Fred Astaire” enough! Despite enormous success, Fred never saw himself as that shimmering cultural icon. In fact, he purposefully played down his achievements, at times beyond the point of humility:
“I suppose I made it look easy, but gee whiz, did I work and worry.”
“When it comes to selling records I was never worth anything particularly except as a collector’s item.”
“I’m just a hoofer with a spare set of tails.” (xi)
Is it possible that Fred Astaire himself felt he hadn’t done enough and wasn’t good enough, despite his record of accomplishments? Fred set out to become a world-travelling vaudeville dance star with his sister, Adele, when he was 5 and she was 8. His autobiography, Steps in Time, recounts their 27-year partnership with critics’ quotes like this: “One of the best brother and sister acts seen here in a long time….the girl is superior to the boy.” At the time, it was Adele’s abilities, not Fred’s, that led to the dancing duo’s shining reputation. Fred actually felt he was “a detriment to my sister.” (xii) Adele’s nickname for Fred was “Moaning Minnie.” Fred makes her reason apparent through his own self-description: “bad-tempered, impatient, hard to please, and critical”–a far cry from what everyone else has to say about him, except a rare few. (xiii) Band leader, Artie Shaw, noted Astaire’s doubt-filled side, the one that, during endless practice sessions, forced Astaire to “really sweat – he toiled: the opposite of his debonair image.” (xiv) In Steps in Time, Fred confirms what Shaw saw: “The carefree, the best-dressed, the debonair Astaire! What a myth!” Fred practically laughs out loud, right from page 8. “My hats are too small, my coats are too short, my walk is loose, I am full of faults. I have a sense of humor, but it won’t always work for me. I am always blowing my top over the wrong things. I tell you, I am a very annoying guy.” (xv) Director Vincente Minelli sized up Astaire this way: “He lacks confidence to the most enormous degree of all the people in the world….He will not even go to see his rushes. He’ll stay out in the alley and pace up and down and worry and collar you when you come out and say ‘How good was so and so?’….he always thinks he is no good.” (xvi)
Here we have, then, a third view of Fred showing that, despite all the accolades and the awards, Fred felt merely human—just like us. That he talked about his fears, and even publicized them widely, shows that he was genuine; thus, an even greater inspiration for us. We all want to be like Fred Astaire in some way: in our dancing, our jobs, our families, our finances, our talents… Knowing this has helped shaped our approach to teaching people how to dance. Our curriculum, which Astaire originated, delivers fundamental principles of good dancing with elements of his own graceful style. We teach our students through a unique rapport-based method of instruction that helps put them at ease so they can learn faster and better. If feeling good about dancing—indeed, about one’s self—were issues for Fred, it only makes sense to look at these matters in ourselves! Support and encouragement are essential to all learning experiences: another powerful lesson of Fred’s life. And another is that you can be Fred Astaire and not even know it! “There was a time when every American boy wanted to be Fred Astaire – even Fred Astaire.” There’s a really good chance Fred still wished that as an adult. As many of us do. Knowing all about Fred Astaire can boost our resolve to do the things our hearts desire, despite misgivings. Like him, we are both gifted and imperfect. We do well at many things, and given the right supports, we can do well at many more! To see him as a human being is really the most important view of all. And Astaire was good at “human”. He practiced the positive habits he advocated: honesty, discipline, persistence, manners, humility, and putting our best foot forward, no matter what. Those principles–and Fred’s standards of excellence–are what our Company still stands for.
So embrace your whole self, your whole perfectly imperfect self… then dance like Fred Astaire!
This story was reprinted from the Spring 2015 issue of inSTEP Magazine, Fred Astaire Dance Studios’ quarterly student publication. For more info on FADS’ inSTEP Magazine, visit our Facebook page.